Review: School for Scoundrels

Todd Phillips seems incapable of escaping youthful educational environs.

School for Scoundrels
Photo: MGM

With Frat House, Road Trip, Old School, and now School for Scoundrels to his name, Todd Phillips seems incapable of escaping youthful educational environs, a notion that goes hand in hand with his generally juvenile sense of humor and rudimentary, slapdash skills behind the camera. For his latest foray into college kids-courting comedy, Phillips loosely remakes a minor 1960 British film of the same name, charting the travails of NYC meter maid and all-around super-loser Roger (Jon Heder) as he enrolls in a secret class for social misfits run by the mysterious Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), who aims to transform his dorky students into manly men via disparagement, humiliation, underhanded tactics, and lessons that preach lying as the surest strategy for getting into a lady’s pants. It’s a premise with next to no payoff, since Phillips and co-screenwriter Scot Armstrong fail to create characters who are more than one-trait punchlines for limp gags, and regularly fall back on unimaginative scenarios and desperate crotch shots for laughs. As the story is centered on male romantic/carnal conquest, much of the action concerns Roger and Dr. P’s rivalry over the heart of grad student/animal hospital volunteer Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), whose soft cuddliness is the flipside to Dr. P’s—and, by extension, the film’s—underlying conception of women as both raging bitches (enter Sarah Silverman) and/or prey for testosterone-driven sexual predators. That School for Scoundrels can’t make up its mind about whether to celebrate or denounce Dr. P’s educational methods—which empower Roger with confidence, but which he’s also forced to eventually reject—makes it less a portrait of conflicted 21st-century masculinity than a thoughtless mess with a misleading title (it’s a school taught by a scoundrel, but for dorks). Asked only to regurgitate prior performances, Heder dutifully performs his bumbling Napoleon Dynamite shtick and Thornton berates people with caustic Bad Santa/Bad News Bears nastiness, while gay panic jokes and a deadly unfunny Ben Stiller cameo round out the proceedings—which, throughout, remain just about as inert as (though significantly less scary than) Thornton’s waxy new surgically enhanced face.

 Cast: Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clarke Duncan, Luis Guzmán, Sarah Silverman, Todd Louiso, Horatio Sanz, Matt Walsh  Director: Todd Phillips  Screenwriter: Todd Phillips, Scot Armstrong  Distributor: MGM  Running Time: 100 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2006  Buy: Video

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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